The devil’s miner
15 December 2005
Last Updated on 22 December 2005
t’s believed that eight million workers have perished in the mines of Cerro Rico, Bolivia, since it opened in the 16th century. The miners are mostly of American Indian origin. Above ground, they are pious Catholics, but down in the mine, other rules apply. Down there, there is another God at work, or rather the devil. Each day the miners sever their ties with God upon entering the mountain, according to an ancient belief that the devil determines the fate of all who work within the mines. It is to the devil that they tender their prayers and offerings. Only the devil can decide whether a rich vein of silver is found, and that’s why the corridors are full of mysterious images to honor the devil. Of course a story about Bolivian miners is also a social story. That story is told from the perspective of a young Bolivian boy.
asilio Vargas lives on a mountain on top of the world. The loss of his father meant the early onset of adulthood and he works punishing 12 hour shifts with his brother deep in the shafts of the silver mines, just to put food on the table. Sometimes it’s hard to be a man and it’s even harder when you’re still a child – Basilio is 14 and his brother Bernardino only 12. On the surface, Basilio is a normal teenager. He looks after his siblings, goes to school and enjoys cartoons and football. Like the rest of the mountain community, the Vargas family are devout catholics. But once over the threshold of the mines, God’s reign holds no sway and they put their trust in Tio, a maleficient devil with horns, the false god of the underworld, created by Spanish conquistadors as a means of keeping the native labourers under control.
Every foot deeper underground takes them one step closer to hell. Daily exposure to the stifling heat and choking dust only reaffirms that belief. Despite the best efforts of the local priest, old superstitions die hard and there are hundreds of statues of the satanic Tio throughout the mines. The miners worship him as their protector, the only one with the power to save them from explosions, cave-ins and a lung condition that makes asbestosis sound like a picnic in Central Park. Regardless of the hardships and the unlikelihood of making it into middle-age, the Vargas family is cheerful. There’s the annual festival to look forward to and if Basilio can only save enough money to pay for it, an education could be his escape route into a healthier life for them all. It’s the South American dream.
or a documentary about devil-worshipping child miners, this is remarkably uplifting. Basilio might have an incredibly tough life but his dignity is never compromised and he never becomes a object of pity, only of respect. There’s no Bob Geldof talking about how dreadful it all is and demanding that these children be saved. For better or worse, they’re trying to save themselves. This is a beautiful film, full of courage, determination and optimism. It should be compulsory viewing for everyone who’s not going to get what they want this Christmas.